Occupation a calamity for both sides, says refusenik leader

Israelis were so hopeful during the Oslo years that activist Peretz Kidron thought he might have to look for something else to do.

Kidron, 71, was one of the first Israeli “refuseniks” when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. That’s when he got involved with Yesh Gvul (“There is a limit,” or “There is a border”), the Israeli peace group that backs soldiers who refused duties in Lebanon and now in the West Bank and Gaza. At that time, about 170 reservists refused to participate. The group, which he credits with spurring the end of the Lebanon war, resurfaced during the first intifada and then again during the second.

Kidron, a journalist and translator, is here to not only promote the actions of the refuseniks — who now number 1,300 — and visit his son and family, but to talk about a new anthology he edited.

Called “Refusenik!” the thin volume about the movement of selective refusal, featuring an introduction by Susan Sontag, has been translated into English, Greek, Japanese and Italian. It includes the stories of a variety of soldiers who refused to serve in Lebanon, and now, in the West Bank and Gaza.

In an interview and then a talk at Berkeley’s Black Oak books last week, the Viennese-born, British-raised Kidron did not mince words.

He explained that one of the reasons the word “occupation” remains palatable to so many in the English-speaking world is that they haven’t experienced it for themselves. In Hebrew, the word for occupation is kibush, the same word that describes the act of crushing olives to squeeze the oil out.

“Occupation is an act of violence, the complete deprivation of human rights,” he said.

While Yesh Gvul used to believe in “selective refusal,” meaning refusal to serve in the territories rather than in defense of Israel itself, Kidron said the current situation has made that stance irrelevant, since carrying out the occupation is now the primary task of the Israel Defense Forces.

“Theoretically, it’s not possible to be in the army now and not fuel the occupation,” he said.

Those soldiers who resist what he calls brainwashing, he said, “are the ones who are trying to save the face of Israel.” There are even five soldiers sitting in jail rather than doing their regular service, he added.

While he said the Palestinians are suffering more than the Israelis, “the occupation is a calamity for both sides.” On the Israeli side, he said, “we’re creating a situation where any decent-minded youngster won’t want to tie his future to the state of Israel.”

And as for American Jews, who continue with their unconditional support, he said, “I have a bone to pick with you.”

Kidron compared it to two friends in a bar, one of whom gets into a brawl. “The friend gives him a broken bottle to fight with, rather than trying to get him out of there.”

Many American Jews, he said, are placed in an impossible situation, “having to defend the indefensible.”

Because of its outreach in high schools, the refusenik movement — which has been limited so far mostly to those soldiers in the reserves — has attracted 500 pre-draft high school students to sign pledges that they will not serve in the territories. It’s a small number, he conceded, but the impact can be enormous.

Yesh Gvul’s other main goal is to make soldiers think before they act, he said, difficult to do, when the military is considered the “holy of holies.”

Kidron, who escaped with his family from Austria in the nick of time in 1938, has no qualms about bringing up the most chilling of references.

“If I didn’t do anything about what’s going on,” he said, “I would be no better than the hypocrites and cynics who closed their doors in ’38 or ’39.”

He concluded by saying that, as a Jew, there was nothing more disturbing to him than an IDF-uniformed soldier justifying his actions with the words: “I was only following orders.”

Peretz Kidron will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 21, at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. Pedro Rd., San Rafael, and 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 22, at the San Francisco Friends Meeting House, 65 Ninth St., S.F.

“Refusenik!: Israel’s Soldiers of Conscience” by Peretz Kidron (160 pages, Zed Books, $19.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."